Beside the Baltic seaside
Try the Baltic coast for a seaside holiday with a difference. (Witold Skrypczak/LPI)
While sunning yourself at a European beach resort, you probably would not expect to hear a man call out in Polish, "Tea... coffee!" as he sells drinks to bathers. You might expect to hear a man speaking in Greek, Spanish maybe, but not Polish.
However, the Mediterranean is not the only part of Europe with beaches worth sunbathing on. Scattered along Poland's Baltic coast are white sandy beaches and a collection of quaint seaside towns that do not seem to have quite left the 19th Century.
Take Kołobrzeg (pronounced ko-wob-zhek), a small Polish city which has all the trappings of an old-time beach resort: wickerwork beach chairs for hire, spa treatments and beer gardens placed on outdoor decks all over town. It is also cheaper than its more famous rivals, which is partly why it is packed with German and Polish holidaymakers, though the word does not seem to have spread further than these countries.
And of course it has the "Kawa! Herbata!" man. H is just as likely to sidle up and produce a can of beer from some hidden compartment in his satchel, whispering "Piwo?" in a tempting manner on a hot sunny day.
A history of conflict (and amber)
Despite its relaxed old-time feel, Kołobrzeg has not had an easy time of it in the past few centuries. As the German city of Colberg, it was slap bang on the invasion route for a number of armies, including Napoleon's. The titanic battle between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union's Red Army for the city at the end of World War II left the city in ruins.
But that was then. In the 21st Century, Kołobrzeg has resumed its 19th Century role as a sleepy but pleasant seaside resort.
In its city centre, a number of historic attractions survived WWII and are worth a look: a 14th-century cathedral, a solid old town hall, a good history museum and a surprisingly interesting military museum. There is also the Powder Tower, a striking 15th Century fragment of the original city walls, at which the occasional medieval fair is staged.
But this is a beach town, and no spot is more symbolic of its identity than the promenade above the sands, crammed with stalls selling all manner of cheap holiday novelties to browsing vacationers.
The stock includes amber, sold both as raw chunks and as neatly fashioned jewellery. It is an apt place to browse this fossilised tree resin that resembles gemstones, as the majority of the world's amber is found along the shores of the Baltic Sea. In both white and gold varieties, it is a popular faux-gemstone in fashion accessories.
Attractions on the sand
However, the real treasure here is the beach. In contrast to outsiders' default mental picture of the Baltic coast as cold and grey, this is a top-notch stretch of sand, white and gleaming when the sun is out. There is not much industry in this part of Poland, so there is little pollution in the water - though to be frank, it is too cold to swim in until July. From the port, an incongruous - or maybe not so incongruous - replica Viking ship takes holiday-makers on regular excursion cruises, a faint reminder of the long-gone era when Scandinavian ships on the horizon could be a disturbing prelude to raids.
Starting in May, it is warm enough to sunbathe, and the beaches remain littered with the bathers until September. As an alternative to the beach umbrella, rows of quaint beach chairs line the sands, with an attendant collecting a small fee for an hour's hire. The chairs are broad structures designed for two people, each with a blue and white striped canopy and a pull-out footrest.